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17, Nov 2017
Guarini & Gottlieb in The New World

The New World, premiering in Bucks County

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

The New World, a new musical at Bucks County Playhouse, New Hope PA
 

It was a perfect way to spend a beautiful day in November, attending the world premiere of a musical about America’s first Thanksgiving. Especially because we’re amidst the fall foliage of Bucks County Pennsylvania, at historic Bucks County Playhouse.

But will this musical comedy be able to please Broadway audiences? I wish I could say yes, because it’s so enjoyable.

We realize in the very first scene that the play is not to be taken literately, and the idea of racial diversity is thrust to the fore. The natives on Cape Cod in 1621 are led by the hilarious Ann Harada (familiar as the Japanese lady in Avenue Q) and her son is the adorable Justin Guarini, the mixed-race singer who became famous on American Idol and who played a Mexican in Paint Your Wagon in New York, then co-starred in Broadway’s In Transit. The Pilgrims arriving from England are led by the black actor Eddie Cooper, while his daughter is the blonde white Jillian Gottlieb.

The immigrant Miles Standish perversely says “I shall not let other people in with their other way of doing things,” tying the old story to American political life in 2017.

Beyond the theme of tribalism and nationalism, The New World is a farce involving two mixed up families whose children defy their parents’s plans for them. Corn is the principal crop, not only in the fields of New England but also in the script by L.F.Turner and Regina DeCicco.

The corny jokes are as high as “a elephant’s eye,” as Oscar Hammerstein II once said. Hammerstein, who owned a home near this theater, insisted on a certain degree of realism. He wanted to write that the corn in Oklahoma was as high as a cow pony’s eye (appropriate for a show about a cowboy’s love for a ranch girl) but realized that a pony is insufficiently tall. Yet we accept The New World’s corn because it’s so good-natured. And it’s all in service of setting up numbers for a very talented cast.

Gary Adler’s upbeat score with lyrics by Phoebe Kreutz provides opportunities for choreography by Lorin Latarro and for show-stopping song renditions by Guarini, Harada, Cooper, Gottlieb (a real find as Strandish’s daughter who falls for the Native American) and supporting cast members including the belting Jennifer Perry as a Pilgrim, the outstanding dancer (one of the three sailors in On the Town) Clyde Alves, and Tyler Maynard who plays a comical turkey named Carl.

Orchestrations by Broadway veteran Danny Troob are delivered by a six-piece band conducted by Paul Masse. Stafford Arima directs in broad strokes. Anna Louizos designed the colorful autumn-in-New England sets.